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Pa. gerrymandering ruling moves college into competitive 7th district

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The Pennsylvania Supreme Court released a new congressional map on February 19th. The map was a remedy the Republican-majority Pa. General Assembly gerrymandering that occurred under the 2011 Pennsylvania Congressional Redistricting Act. The Supreme Court created a new non-partisan map that allows districts to follow the standards of being contiguous, compact, equal in population, and adhering to the redistricting criteria in the state constitution. Under the new map, Swarthmore is in the 7th district, whereas it was previously in the 1st district. The redistricting means that Swarthmore students now have an opportunity to make an impact in the upcoming midterm elections.

In January, the Pennsylvania Supreme Court struck down the old congressional map as unconstitutional. The court ordered the Republican-controlled legislature and Democratic Governor Wolf to negotiate a new map that overturned the 13-5 tilt to the Republicans for congressional seats in the state. The negotiated map was never created and Republicans submitted independent maps.

“The legislature didn’t hold any open hearings or [do] anything at all until two days before the deadline and at the last minute, the Republican majority leader and Speaker of the House just drew their own map and they didn’t consult other Republicans, let alone Democrats,” Ben Stern ’20, president of the Swarthmore College Democrats and deputy campaign manager for U.S. congressional candidate Mary Gay Scanlon, said. “It was basically the same map and of course Governor Wolf rejected it.”

The Republican legislators claimed that the court had over-exercised its power to favor Democrats. Some have called for impeachment of justices. Republicans have also attempted to appeal the case to the U.S. Supreme Court.

“This is so complicated because whichever way you spin it, it seems as though the map is favoring one group over the other,” Jorge Tello ’20, president of the Swarthmore Conservative Society, said. “From what I know about it, the original map was already favoring the Republicans. I see how it can look like a politically motivated act no matter how you draw the map.”

According to Justin Snyder ’21, whose family lives in Wallingford, a neighboring community to Swarthmore, the new map is more logical. He also stated that the negative reactions to the redistricting are in anticipation of the upcoming elections.

“I think that [Republicans of the congressional delegation] are just very upset that the map is going against them with the elections coming up,”  Snyder said. “I think they don’t want the maps to be different because these politicians probably would’ve had a better chance with the old map.”

According to Dylan Clairmont ’21, secretary of outreach for Swarthmore College Democrats, the redistricting created a more level playing field for local and state politics by correcting the gerrymandered districts that the Republican legislature drew after the 2010 census.

“Before redrawing the map, [Pennsylvania] used to be so skewed to the Republicans,” Clairmont said. “I think it’s better that we don’t have local politicians thinking through how they can link two populations together while excluding another group.”

“The districts here prior to the court ruling were heinously gerrymandered,” Stern said. “It was one of the worst cases of politically motivated gerrymandering in the country.”

Snyder also believes that the redistricting made a better map that not only makes things more fair, but also is more logical.

“I believe my district is a little smaller than it was before,” Snyder said. “I was in District 1 before and now I’m in District 5 which is much more of a fixed shape that actually makes sense.”

According to candidate Mary Gay Scanlon the redistricting did a good job with resolving the partisan gerrymandering in Pennsylvania. However, she wishes the process had been done differently.

“I’m certainly thrilled that [the redistricting] happened because the state had been badly gerrymandered to distort our electoral process,” Scanlon said. “I wish that it could have been done with the cooperation of the legislature because it is their job, but they screwed up and they didn’t take the opportunity to fix it.”

While the Pennsylvania Supreme Court drew the new map — a job normally done by state legislature — the map followed non-partisan criteria by the Pennsylvania state constitution. While the Democrats are likely to gain three new seats, the claims that the new map is now favoring Democrats are contested.

“I think it’s natural that the people that say that this is judicial overreach are Republicans,” said Stern. “Prior to the redistricting decision, 15 congressional seats are Republican while 5 are Democrat because of partisan gerrymandering. I think the prediction after the elections are 10-8 which you could say is advantageous to Democrats, but even then, Democrats still have less seats than they should have proportionally at the state level.”

The efforts to remedy the gerrymandering in Pennsylvania and negative responses to the redistricting both point to the upcoming midterm elections and the political ramifications of a new map. Swarthmore is now in the 5th District, which encompasses all of Delaware County and is now a safely Democratic district.

“I could definitely see Swat having an impact on the upcoming elections,” Tello said.

According to Clairmont, the college is an important voting group in a new district that is now more competitive amongst Democratic candidates after the redistricting.

“It’s important that students, if they can, vote here with the exception of maybe people who live in swing states since absentee ballots don’t really get counted until months afterwards,” he said. “Swat is a useful resource for candidates and we can, in turn, help pick a candidate that represents our beliefs instead of just going for a liberal Democrat.”

Swarthmore Democrats have been tabling at Sharples for several candidates, including Scanlon, to sign their petitions in order to get them on the ballot, in addition to other political activism initiatives.

According to Stern, Swarthmore College Democrats have been in the process of writing up policy platforms, especially regarding immigration, with other groups on campus to send to Democratic candidates.

“We can say that if [the candidates] don’t meet these policy asks of us, we will vote for the more progressive candidate,” Stern said.

The redistricting and ability to gain approximately 3 seats for Democrats not only increases voting power for students, but also incentivizes candidates to appeal to this demographic.

“In an election with so many candidates, [sending out a platform] can actually make a big difference because we’re now in a pretty safe Democratic district, so Democrats in this race are practically rushing to be the most progressive. They’re not running on this centrist, moderate platform trying to win against a Republican in suburban Pennsylvania,” Stern said.

As expressed by Scanlon, students should take seriously the opportunity to vote and exercise citizen engagement.

“I’m a civics and elections junkie. You don’t get to complain if you don’t vote,” Scanlon said. “I think it’s really important that students, if you can vote, that you do get engaged and understand the issues. Clearly people here [at the college] are smart and engaged.”

Students of the college who can vote are able to do so in a significant way for a new district especially in the midterm primaries since they fall during finals on May 15th.

“We used to be in a silly district that snaked up to Philadelphia where Republicans never ran, so our vote was basically meaningless,” Stern said. “Now, there’s an open wide primary in the 5th District and it’s great that we have some political power. Especially since districts are small and people don’t vote in midterm general elections to begin with and even fewer people vote in primary midterm elections. It’s such a small voter turnout that a college campus of 1500 students can actually have a pretty big impact.”

Brief: P.A. redistricting likely to amplify Swarthmore students’ voices in midterm election

in News/Regional News by

Under the 2011 Pennsylvania Congressional Redistricting Act, the Republican-majority Pa. General Assembly moved Swarthmore out of the 7th district, of which it had been a part for over 75 years, and into the 1st district, grouping it with reliably Democratic Philadelphia suburbs. Outside of a district so gerrymandered it has been nicknamed “Goofy Kicking Donald Duck,” the cutout of Swarthmore now outlines Goofy’s left arm, and at the neck of the peninsula-like shape that envelops the town, the 1st district is no wider than ½ mile.

According to Philly.com, the 7th district was 52.8 percent Democratic voters and 47.2 percent Republican before redistricting, while the new Congressional lines created a 51.8 percent Republican majority. Republican Patrick Meehan has represented the district since 2011, but will not be running for the 2018 midterm elections. The New York Times reported on Jan. 20 that Meehan used taxpayer dollars to fund a sexual assault settlement with a former aide he called his “soulmate.”

On Jan. 22, the Supreme Court of Pennsylvania issued an order stating that the Congressional district lines drawn in 2011 “clearly, plainly and palpably” violate the state constitution. The decision was made on the “sole basis” of the state constitution instead of relying on the national Constitution, as did recent gerrymandering cases concerning Wisconsin and North Carolina. On Feb. 5, Justice Samuel A. Alito rejected GOP lawmakers’ appeal to the Supreme Court for review of the decision.

The General Assembly is scheduled to submit the new congressional map to Governor Wolf on Friday. The court decision stipulates that it will create a redistricting plan itself–an unprecedented move–unless Wolf approves the plan by Feb. 15. Based on Swarthmore’s historical inclusion in the 7th district as well as the tenuously incongruous shape of the map around the Swarthmore area, the new map is likely to re-incorporate the town of Swarthmore into the 7th district. Pa. is one of the few states in which Congressmen can run for office outside of their district of residence, the district will be more competitive than it has been in years as candidates contend to fill incumbent House member Republican Patrick Meehan’s soon-to-be-vacant seat. This all comes at a critical time, when Democrats seek to flip 24 Republican seats in order to win back the House under Trump. There are 18 congressional districts in Pennsylvania, 13 of which are currently held by Republicans; according to reports from The New York Times, a more nonpartisan map would make three of these seats likely to swing Democratic. Adding to the chaos is the vacancy of Bob Brady’s seat, a House Democrat who has represented the 1st district since 1998. His retirement, announced on Jan. 31, followed the release of court documents from a still-ongoing F.B.I. investigation in November 2017 concerning a $90,000 payment Brady made to one of his opponents during his 2012 campaign.

In addition, for the first year in many years, the competitive primary falls during finals, so registered Swarthmore students will be able to vote in the primary without having to request absentee ballots. As the Phoenix reported on Nov. 16, Swarthmore student turnout had a major role in the results of local elections, when two Democrats were elected to the Delaware County Council, which had not had Democratic members for over 30 years.

“In Pennsylvania as a college student, our vote probably matters more than nearly anywhere else in the country,” Ben Stern ’20, president of the Swarthmore College Democrats, said. “Especially in 2018, because we have a vulnerable governor and a senator and new highly contested Congressional elections.”

The Phoenix will follow-up with news following the expected release of a new map on Feb. 15.

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